Hello all, Elessar here. And in the first of what I hope will be a recurring segment here at Moar Powah: a director’s retrospective. Basically I watch over the entire career of a director and over the course of several entries, give mini-reviews of each of their works. And for my first one for this site, I’m tackling one of the big ones, a full on geek legend: Kevin Smith.
It’s entirely possible that, in a few years, no one will be able to explain what exactly made Kevin Smith such a big deal. Unlike the other directors who broke out of the indie scene in the same era (Tarantino, Rodriguez, Payne, the Coens) he was firmly a man of his moment, a leading voice in what would eventually come to be called Generation X. As the times changed, he was unable or unwilling to change with them, not helped by the fact that his public persona shifted drastically from ‘Fun lovable nerd’ to ‘Angry man who yells at his critics on Twitter.’
So what happened? Were his later period movies really that bad or were they just misunderstood? And for that matter, are his earlier movies that great? Well we’re gonna find out. Let’s begin our walk through the career of Kevin Smith, movies, comics, everything.
You might have inferred from that introduction that I dislike Kevin Smith, which is not entirely true. Even now, 20 years on and with much of his output increasingly dated, Clerks is a great movie. It’s one of the rare examples of a movie that manages to be both perfectly of it’s moment, but still be relevant years, even decades later. Its message, its characters, its story (such as it is) are broader and more relevant than a lot of his other movies. It’s also smarter, funnier and more engaging than the vast majority of his output.
Part of this is due to how broad it is. It’s got a unique voice and presentation, one that would speak to people who wind up working retail jobs the world over. The plot is barely there, just a small series of scenes interspersed around the movie. The vast majority of the movie is basically a series of small sketches, interspersed with a few moments of plot, like an X-Files season on fast forward. The plot itself…is not overly interesting and the writing…is pretty good but not exceptionally so. And the acting…is kind of the amateurish side.
Okay, this is starting to sound negative, I do really like the movie. The plot might not be very good, but it’s acceptable and it’s not really there all that often. The acting might be amateurish, but everyone does pretty good, especially Jeff Anderson as Randal. The writing might not be great, but it’s definitely better than some other first movies I’ve seen. But more than that, it has a rawness and a reality to it that a lot of movies seem to lack. It gets itself, and the people who it’s characters are based on, without looking down on them. It might be equal to other first movies from some famous directors, like Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth. Even if his original ending would have ruined all that.
Despite being made by a complete unknown, with a cast of unknowns and a story composed of small snippets, Clerks was a big hit. Well, not a big hit by normal standards, a big hit by the standards of a movie with a budget of 200,000 dollars and change. Still, it became very famous off that, as did Smith and his sidekick Jason Mewes, as well as being well received by critics. Surely fame and fortune were soon to follow.
In an unrelated article for my pre-Moar Powah blog, I compared the relationship between Clerks and Mallrats to the relationship between The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Once you manage to get over the mental hurdle that is the difference in their content, I think you’ll find the comparison is rather accurate. The first movie is cheaper and more obviously amateurish, but also rawer and with a sense of reality and passion. The second movie is clearly made with more money and professionalism but lacks that sense of reality. Also, both of the second movies are simpler, more straightforward and not as good.
The biggest flaw in Mallrats is the characters, or at least the two leads. TS, the nominal lead is whiny and self involved, but at least he learns and grows a bit over the course of the movie, and actually works for his happy ending. No, the big issue is with Brody, the actual lead. Brody is, regardless of how the movie tries to portray him, a completely awful human being, with little to no regard for how his actions affect others. Which is usually fine with me, I love Being John Malkovich, a movie populated entirely with awful people doing awful things to each other, but the issue is all in the framing. Malkovich at least remembers to frame it’s characters as awful people, but Mallrats keeps trying to make Brody look like he’s in the right, and he doesn’t work or change at all for his embarrassingly happy ending.
The eventual result of this is that they have to work overtime to keep Brody in the right; the villain (played by a very young Ben Affleck) has to become cartoonishly evil and the characters all have to suffer mightily by never calling Brody out. That would be enough to sink most movies, but the movie as a whole is also something of a mess. Jay and Silent Bob’s subplot feels like it’s happening in an entirely different movie, the secondary characters are pretty much useless, the script is sloppy and the ending is simultaneously rushed and drawn out…I didn’t even know that was possible. It’s just a flaccid unlikable movie.
And people didn’t really respond to it. It’s today considered the weakest movie of his early career and it was a pretty big box office flop. Maybe it was the unlikeable characters, maybe it was the self insert fantasy, maybe it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yeah, there are people who’ll defend it, but this is the internet, there are people who will defend anything. So Smith, thus chastened, decided to return to his roots and do a much more personal movie.
Chasing Amy (1997)
I get that part of the appeal of Kevin Smith is that his movies are so personal, because he’s often working out his issues in movie form. But a movie based entirely on a failed relationship, where he casts the female half of that failed relationship in the movie itself? Holy Emperor, what kind of guts does that have to take?
If there’s one thing that defines this movie to me, besides the above, it’s how dated it is. A large chunk of the movie is given over to the lesbian female lead falling in love with a guy, which is offputting enough already, but even after her extensive sexual history with men is revealed, the word bisexual never comes up. The entire thing reeks of someone who is a complete outsider to a subculture trying to write about it, and Kevin Smith’s attempts are universally awkward.
And then there’s it’s treatment of the comics industry, which is weird to me because Smith is heavily into comics. A running subplot in the movie is that no comics outside generic superhero and generic romance comics ever sell. And fine, you could at least claim ignorance at certain points in comics history (I don’t expect everyone to have heard the name Robert Crumb) but this is 1997. 10 years after Watchmen redefined the superhero genre. 5 years after Maus changed the public’s perception of comic books. A year after The Sandman finished its medium changing run. Hell, Sin City and Preacher were still going when this movie came out. You cannot claim, in 1997, that alternative comics don’t sell.
As I was writing this I asked myself why I was devoting so much time and energy to such a trivial aspect of the movie? Shouldn’t the actual movie be more important than the way it treats comics or it’s gender politics? And that’s when I realized: everything outside the bizarrely irritating parts of the movie is devastatingly boring. All of it is cliched romantic comedy crap that isn’t interestingly enough written or presented to keep me engaged.
The movie briefly comes alive during a couple of scenes, most notably a scene towards the end where the female lead defends her lifestyle choices and a scene at the very very end where…you know what, I won’t spoil, but aside from that it’s mostly just dull. The only things that are worth noting are it’s incredibly off ways it portrays the comics industry of the time and LGBT culture. And while it was well received at the time (supposedly being close to an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay) I still maintain it was a misfire. A well intentioned and ambitious misfire, but a misfire nonetheless. Still, it was a massive hit against it’s tiny budget, so Smith was back on top.
Dogma is, without exaggeration, the best film Kevin Smith has ever made. It’s got the best script, the most engaging story and the most unique angle. Yeah it’s just Smith working out his personal issues via film, but this time it’s a more interesting issue being worked out and much more importantly it’s an issue that more people can relate to.
There are some minor missteps, such as an over-reliance of telling instead of showing and obviously low budget but overall it’s a compelling enough story to make it worth watching. It’s also a unique take on the ‘called by god’ aspect, especially the scene in the woods. But what really sells it, at least to me, is the absolutely superb cast. This might be the first really good use outside of Clerks of Jay and Silent Bob, but it’s also good to see real actors. Chris Rock is awesome as the 13th apostle (remember when we thought he was gonna be the next Eddie Murphy? That was a fun time) and Alan Rickman is pitch perfect voice of god.
It’s also smarter than most of Smith’s movies. Admittedly that’s not an exceptionally high bar to cross (okay so his movies aren’t stupid, but none of them are precisely art pieces if you get me) but it’s got an understanding of the internal mythology involved and a better than usual understanding of Christian mythology, even if the more overt fantastical elements don’t gel well with the other View Askewverse movies.
Even with the typical controversy surrounding any Christian movie that isn’t a straightforward conservative adaptation of The Bible, the movie was a solid sized hit and well received by critics. And while many people might name Clerks as Kevin Smith’s best, I know I’m not alone when I say Dogma was his best. And with him having reached his peak, there’s only one way to go. And we’ll discuss that direction on the next installment of this director’s retrospective.